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A picture of Sue Pemberton

Sue Pemberton

Cultural assistant, specimen preparator (California Academy of Sciences)

in animal, curator

Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Sue Pemberton. I am a curatorial assistant and marine mammal specimen preparator in the Dept. of Ornithology and Mammalogy, at California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. I've been formally employed there for 3 1/2 years, but have been doing this work since fall of 2008, when I started as a volunteer. We (CAS) are part of the Marine Mammal Stranding Network, and respond to reports of dead seals, sea lions, whales, dolphins, porpoises and sea turtles from the Sonoma/Mendocino county line, down the coast to the San Mateo/Santa Cruz county line, and all of the shoreline inside San Francisco bay and all of its tributaries.

What hardware do you use?

In my work, I collect information that is then submitted to the National Marine Fisheries Services, which is used to monitor the health and status of marine mammals off the coast of California. If, while I am collecting data, I decide that the specimen I am working on would be a valuable addition to our scientific collection, I collect the skull and baculum (penis bone). When working on smaller animals, I use surgical scalpels. When performing a necropsy on a larger animal, like a whale, I use large knives. Sorry if I disappoint you in not using a chainsaw! We currently have an exhibit that is showcasing some of the work we do with marine mammals. Our collection is also available researchers from all over the world.

We use actual surgical scalpels (extraordinarily sharp!). I have actually gone through one of my fingers completely while flensing (cutting away flesh) an orca rib. They are quite unforgiving when you make a mistake.

The knives we use for whales vary a lot, but among them are good old-fashioned large kitchen knives, machete-like knives, and specialized hunting-type knives with a t-type hand grip. In the work we do you have to improvise and use whatever instrument will get the job done, regardless of its original purpose.

We also recently added a SPOT device to our field pack as part of our safety plan. I have yet to use it but I look forward to having in with me when I respond to the beaches I visit that are well outside phone coverage areas.

And what software?

In the field, I depend heavily on an iPhone App called MotionX, which is a GPS app. It allows me to take a photo of the animal I am working on that will include the latitude and longitude of the animals' location, date, time, and a photo - all things that are essential to reporting accurate information - and emails it to my work address.

What would be your dream setup?

Hmmmm, my dream set up for field work? I don't know if there is anything that would enhance what I do. Maybe a quad runner, so I don't have to walk miles and miles on the beach.